Les Miles has been coaching long enough to know that season openers can be sloppy, even for elite teams.
So for No. 3 LSU, a 41-14 victory over six-touchdown underdog North Texas was only mildly disappointing, but hardly cause for concern.
Miles seemed generally pleased that his Tigers at least had a chance to get a real game in on the heels of a disruptive tropical storm. Doing so allows them to make some evaluations – and corrections – and advance of a visit by Washington (1-0) next Saturday night, he said.
“I'm glad we had the first game. Lord knows we needed to play it,” Miles said when asked whether Isaac, which canceled practice last Wednesday, had undermined preparations for the Mean Green.
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LSU learned that its passing game has not yet improved as much as the Tigers thought it would with highly hyped quarterback Zach Mettenberger behind center. It also discovered that some of its young defenders remain susceptible to missed assignments and the type of over-pursuit that can result in big plays.
Never was that more apparent than when North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson found receiver Brelan Chancellor over the middle on a third-and-10 play for an 80-yard touchdown, the longest scoring play given up by the Tigers' defense in more than a season.
Oddsmakers figured the Mean Green might get in the end zone once at most, based on the fact they made LSU a 44-point favorite but set the over-under at 52.
North Texas put together a second touchdown drive, finishing with Chancellor's 15-yard catch-and-run on a third-and goal play.
LSU had two freshman working in its secondary – cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins. Mills was the starter and moved over to nickel back on passing downs, with Collins taking over Mills' cornerback spot.
Miles would not say who missed assignments on North Texas' two receiving TDs, but veteran safety Eric Reid stepped up to take the blame – whether he deserved it or not.
“The two touchdowns were my fault,” Reid said. “I put myself in a bad position and put us in a bad place. Thankfully we were able to overcome that and still get the win. It is something that we will adjust, I promise.”
LSU's defense also did not have a sack, a bit of a surprise considering the Tigers boast one of the most fearsome tandems of defensive ends in the country: Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo.
“It wasn't our best performance,” Mingo said. “We were a little jittery and we missed some tackles; something that we are not accustomed to doing.”
In any event, the lack of sacks did not equate to a lack of pressure. Rather, Thompson was careful to unload the ball quickly and settle for incompletions. He connected on only 8 of 21 passes, and was intercepted once by Reid.
Miles chose not to start Montgomery, who was replaced by Lavar Edwards much of the game. It was not clear if Miles was giving Montgomery extra rest or if he simply wanted to get more playing time for others in a game the Tigers were favored to win big.
Miles would only say that Edwards has practiced well and will play his share of snaps.
The running game was one aspect of LSU's night that went as expected, if not better. Miles gleefully referred to Kenny Hilliard and Aflred Blue as “Shake and bake,” and “Thunder and lightning,” after each had rushed for more than 100 yards. Hilliard scored twice, and the Tigers finished with 316 yards rushing. The return game also looked fine when Odell Beckham Jr. took a punt back 70 yards for a score.
Miles said he was largely encouraged by the performance of his new starting quarterback, even if that very performance briefly drew boos from restless fans during a third-quarter drive that stalled inside the 20.
After the high praise Mettenberger's passing ability has received from coaches and teammates, fans expected him to be spectacular against a North Texas defense that had first-time starters throughout its secondary.
Instead, Mettenberger was merely solid, completing 19 of 26 passes for 192 yards, one TD and one interception on a forced throw near the Mean Green goal line. He also did not pick up a cornerback blitz and was sacked so hard that trainers made him sit out a series.
“Things definitely got screwed up a little bit this week,” Mettenberger said, referring to Isaac. “But saying that, I don't want to make excuses or anything like that. We have to go out there next week and execute better, and I'm confident that we will.”